A much needed face-lift to an aging facility belonging to the engineering department may bring Yale researchers up to speed with their competitors in the world of nanotechnology research.
The new facility — which finished undergoing renovations last week — is an expansion of the 20-year-old Center for Microelectronics Materials and Structures Clean Room in the Becton Engineering and Applied Science Center. The new facility will give researchers access to the latest technology for fabricating micro- and nano-scale devices, Dean of Engineering Paul Fleury said.
Nanoscience refers to the investigation and use of processes and devices of less than 100 nanometers — a miniscule measurement, considering a human hair is about 100,000 nanometers wide.
Fleury said the facility was renovated to accommodate a growing interest in nano- and micro-technology at the University, which has been hampered by the lack of existing resources needed to support such growth.
“There’s been a tremendous increase in the number of students and faculty who require this kind of facility to design, fabricate and do research on nano-scale devices,” he said. “Our current facility was not competitive with other major peer institutions and was stifling the research we could do.”
He said the process of nano- and micro-technology fabrication requires numerous steps, each of which may depend on a different apparatus. Having one state-of-the-art piece of equipment does not yield an overall improvement unless all parts of the “fabrication line” are equally capable, Fleury said. Renovating the facility allowed the department to improve the overall quality of its equipment, as well as to increase its user friendliness and reliability, he said.
The facility serves more than a dozen faculty members and about 40 post-doctoral research fellows and students who depend on it for their research projects, electrical engineering professor T.P. Ma, co-director of the center, said. Construction on the facility began in early 2007, following a year of planning.
Ma said renovating the facility was necessary in order to equip Yale researchers with the cutting-edge resources they need to push their research forward. At the time of the center’s construction about 20 years ago, he said the room contained “state-of-the-art” resources, but as nano and micro-technology has continued to grow more advanced, Yale has fallen behind the curve in recent years.
“Now, after 20 years, we were limping along and trying to make do with what we had,” Ma said. “The research in the field really requires equipment to construct nano-structures and micro-structures, which we didn’t have the capability for at Yale.”
Peer institutions such as Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cornell University already had extensive nanotechnology facilities before Yale’s renovation brought it up to a comparable level, Fleury said. Many researchers at Yale previously relied on facilities at neighboring institutions to complete portions of their research, but Ma said travel and securing approval for use of the facilities were inconvenient.
Fleury said he anticipates the renovated Clean Room will attract new users and research projects, enabling the study of nanotechnology at Yale to evolve in new directions.
Already, nanotechnology researchers at Yale are beginning to create “smart” particles that destroy cancer cells, develop mechanisms to renew tissues and organs, build “artificial atoms,” develop devices for communications and create efficient catalysts for sustainable energy systems, among other research projects, Fleury said.
The facility is not the only addition to Yale’s growing body of resources in the area, Fleury said. He said the department’s efforts to update its facilities were a part of Yale’s commitment made by University President Richard Levin in 2000 of over $1 billion in funding for science and engineering expansion programs in the coming decade, which included the creation of the Institute for Nanoscience and Quantum Engineering last year.
The National Science Foundation also funded the establishment of a Materials Research Science and Engineering Center at the University two years ago, he said.
“This major investment is one of many in our ongoing program for development of science and engineering at Yale,” associate provost for science and technology Bruce Carmichael said.
The renovated Clean Room is equipped with new environmental systems, including new mechanisms for safety and fireproofing, chilled water, vacuum and gas supplies, and enhanced ventilation and toxic-gas monitoring.
It contains over $1.5 million worth of new equipment for optical lithography, photo-mask production and dry- and plasma-etching. In addition, it has “ultra-clean” air standards, which require fewer than 100 microscopic particles per cubic foot of air.
Two new professional technical staff members have also been appointed to oversee the facility, Fleury said.